It's been a couple of years since we got to run around writer J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy realm in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, decapitating Uruks like dandelions and generally laying waste to the Dark Lord Sauron's forces all on our own, and we've missed it. We haven't gone full-on Gollum or anything, cradling the disc and calling it our precious; we have jobs, and we don't even like fish that much. But we have been hoping for another chance to take on the forces of evil in the well-trod fantasy setting.
The follow-up, Middle-earth: Shadow of War -- or "Shadow of Wardor," as we like to call it -- aims to fill that void later this year, and we can't wait. Since developer Monolith Productions announced it in February and showed off gameplay a couple weeks later, we've been scouring the internet to pick up every scrap of information we can find about the upcoming title, and we've gathered the best bits below.
Here is Every Update You Need To Know About Middle-earth: Shadow of War... dor.
17 It will be out August 22
Yes, this August 22. We'll get the super-facty things out up front, starting with when you’ll be able to take on the armies of evil and bathe in monster blood once more. Shadow of War is launching at the end of the summer for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, and so far, it doesn’t look like it’s going to have a lot of competition for your gaming time and dollars.
It’ll be out between Agents of Mayhem, by Saints Row developer Volition, and Bungie’s followup to online, role-playing shooter Destiny. It’s like a hack-and-slash sandwich with shooter bread, and it’d be a pretty sweet spot for War to inhabit ... if it weren't also the release date for developer Naughty Dog's spinoff adventure title Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. Why are you making us choose, video games?
Still, this is far enough way that at least we might be done playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild by then. Maybe.
16 It's a Project Scorpio launch title (kind of)
As an iterative console that is still, basically, an Xbox One, Microsoft’s "Project Scorpio" won't necessarily have its own library. But when the “most powerful console ever made” comes out sometime before the end of the year, it’ll arrive ready to handle the ideal version of Shadow of War.
Microsoft is building Scorpio around 4K output and greater compatibility with virtual reality accessories, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be fighting the legions of Sauron while wearing a silly headset. We’d actually be alright with that as long as nobody saw us, but the main draw is going to be a better, smoother performance at higher resolutions.
Shadow of War, with its epic battles and hundreds of on-screen characters, sounds like it will be an ideal showcase for what Scorpio can do. We have no reason to think it won’t look reasonably epic on our standard PlayStation 4 and Xbox One setups, however. It will also work with Microsoft’s “Play Anywhere” program, which will let people playing on both PC and console move between platforms without losing progress.
15 It's about forging a new Ring of Power
We got a hint of what Shadow of War would promise at the end of the first game, when hero Talion pledges to create another Ring of Power in order to fight Sauron.
The Rings are central to Tolkien lore, if you couldn’t tell from the thousands of pages he wrote about characters walking halfway across Middle-earth to destroy just one of them. The 19 others went to the Elves, Dwarves, and Men, to whom mostly awful things happened. Elven smith Celebrimbor, who learned about making magic jewelry from Sauron but created the three Elven rings without letting the Dark Lord get his evil sauce on them, is spirit-bound with Talion in the Shadow series.
What all of this means is that Talion/Celebrimbor are capable of making an object that can take on Sauron while remaining free of his influence, and that’s what players will be doing before they move on to the next part of their plans of epic revenge, which is:
14 You'll raise an army to conquer Mordor
One may not simply walk into Mordor, but if you’re already there, you should probably bring or find some backup. Mordor starts with the awakening of Sauron’s army and its destruction of human settlements in the area. That’s what sets Talion on his pet project of taking down the Lord of the Rings all by himself (with help from his spirit-Elf companion).
In the sequel, however, it’s not all up to them, and that’s why they make the new Ring of Power in the first place. Sauron uses his magical artifact to control and command his armies, and Talion and Celebrimbor’s version lets them do the same. And they use that to conquer, recruit, and amass a huge army from Mordor’s population to turn them against their master.
Based on what we’ve seen, you’ll spend most of your time building up your troops and using them to take over different regions to add to your numbers. It all looks a lot less solitary than our first adventure in Mordor, which we’re totally fine with.
13 The battles will be massive
The first gameplay demo for Shadow of War gave us a look at how we’ll be spending a lot of our time, as Talion leads his forces in an assault on an Uruk stronghold. It was a Helm’s Deep-sized battle, which is a marked change from the considerably smaller skirmishes we took on in the first entry. But then again, you didn’t have an army behind you then.
Developer Monolith Productions is aiming to up the scale throughout this second outing, starting with that crew of kill-crazy minions you build around yourself. As much as we enjoy the quieter, more character-driven moments in the Lord of the Ring movies and their source material, they don’t necessarily make for the best gaming experiences. We dig that in more narrative titles like Life Is Strange and Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but you can’t just give players a populated world full of thousands of baddies, hand them a sword and a bow, and then not provide any massive warfare. That’s just cheap.
The dual mechanics of the revised Nemesis System and the core element of building an army should, however, provide the eye-feasts we were missing last time.
12 The Nemesis System is bigger and more varied
Shadow of Mordor surprised us with its brutal gameplay, varied world, and surprisingly thin story considering the wealth of lore it was drawing from. We actually can’t remember the plot other than “Revenge, and then lots of monsters die.”
But the real star is the Nemesis System, which picks up the narrative slack by making every enemy you fight a potential rival. Those who defeat you get promoted, becoming more powerful and “remembering” your history the next time you see them. It added weight and consequence to what might have otherwise been a forgettable hack-and-slash game.
Shadow of War will expand this already solid mechanic by applying it not only to your enemies but your allies. As you build your army, you’ll forge alliances and open yourself up to both betrayal and friendship from your underlings. Instead of just constantly hating Uruks for different reasons, the new Nemesis System might also give you reason and incentive to be nice to these bloodthirsty monsters … until they inevitably screw you over, probably.
11 Uruks live in 'tribes' with their own cultures and visual styles
If you spend enough time slaughtering Orcs, Uruks, and goblins and burring your sword on their shattered bones, you’ll probably forget that part where they’re a civilization with unique cultures and traditions of their own — although, admittedly, most of them involve murder.
Shadow of War will capture the several, disparate, murdery elements of Mordor civilization through its depiction of different “tribes” of the creatures, each with their own strengths and visual styles. The gameplay demo shows off a couple examples, including necromancers and Beast Masters. Members of different tribes will wear customized armor and have abilities appropriate to their stations, and if you place one in control of a fortress, he (all enemies are still male, apparently) will decorate the place to suit his tastes.
We assume this means that Beast Masters will cover the joint in bones and hides, while necromancers will goth it up with skulls and … other, more creepy bones or whatever, but we’ll have to wait to see for sure.
10 Uruk army hierarchy remains, adding 'Overlords'
Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System included a power structure that determined how strong, well protected, and stocked with sweet, sweet loot each enemy would be. It had three layers: Soldier, Captain, and Warchief, and individual characters moved through the ranks either by killing Talion or receiving a promotion after the Ranger creates an opening in a higher position by creating several other openings in the Uruk that used to have the job.
It looks like these rankings, or something similar, will return in Shadow of War but will give players even more control. Instead of just mixing up the ranks by slaughtering or dying those in the mix, you’ll actively advance members of your army to reward them for helping you out or just because you like their hat. It’s really up to you.
War adds an extra status, too: Overlord. These characters are the major bosses of strongholds, and once you defeat one, you replace them with someone from your own ranks. We assume this will remove them from the regular battle rotation since they have to go sit in their battle room and spruce it up with new curtains and flame jets, but we’ll see how it turns out.
9 You won't just fight alongside Uruks
This week, Monolith revealed some new gameplay from the opening sequence of Shadow of War, which has Talion and Celebrimbor coming to the aid of a Gondorian city under siege from the resurgent forces of Mordor. The developer describes it as a "full-scale, human city," which is something we just didn’t see much of in the first Shadow. We got to spend about 10 minutes at the outpost Talion helped to defend before the bad guys showed up to wreck it and murder everyone, but that didn’t really give us much to work with.
The opening segment aims to throw us right into the middle of a battle bigger than any we’d seen in Mordor, and based on the footage the developer debuted, it looks pretty promising. And this sequence looks like it’ll ease players into the idea of not just going at it alone, as Talion joins up with some soldiers of Gondor to take on the invading horde.
8 You will see one of the most significant moments in Middle-earth history
Warning: Plot spoilers in this entry
The Gondorian city you'll defend in the opening sequence of Shadow of War is Minas Ithil. And if you're not super up on your Tolkien and wondering why we don’t see that settlement in The Lord of the Rings, you actually do; it’s just gone through some changes first.
Minas Ithil was the site of a major battle during the first war against Sauron thanks to its proximity to his home turf, but it managed to survive and even thrive in the Dark Lord’s absence. But by the time the events of Lord happen, it has fallen to the forces of evil and received a new name: Minas Morgul. That’s the creepy city with the terrifying, moving statues that we see Frodo and Sam skirt by during their quest to destroy the One Ring, and it’s the home of the Witch-king of Angmar, the leader of the Ringwraiths.
Minas Ithil appearing as a Human city guarantees that we’re going to see it fall and turn all dark and wraith-y during Shadow of War, and Monolith confirms as much during some behind-the-scenes footage IGN released this week. It’s a pretty intense way to open a game, and we’re looking forward to seeing it.
7 Monolith wants it to be funnier
We aren't expecting a full-on comedy here, but here's the thing about Uruks: They love to fight. They actually live to fight because that's what they were literally born to do. Sauron made them for battle and to wage war on whomever the Dark Lord sets them upon.
And since you’re going to spend a lot of time with these guys when you’re playing Shadow of War, Monolith wants to try to temper all of that bloodthirsty mayhem with some lighter touches here and there. And we're all for that because the original title was serious to a fault.
“I think that because it is exploring [violence], it becomes equally important to make sure we have that humor and that likability offsetting that,” the Monolith’s VP of creative Michael de Plater said in an interview with The Verge. “The orcs revel in violence so much, they love it so much, they’re almost like vikings in that sense. We don’t want to wallow in it, or feel sadistic.”
It sounds less like a fanciful romp than a Klingon-centered episode of Star Trek. You know, the ones where everyone’s standing around drinking and threatening to kill each other, and it’s kind of funny because you’re not there trying to keep someone from stabbing you with a knife that has too many blades.
6 Monolith compares it to Terminator 2
We don’t think that means that this time, you’ll go up against an Uruk that can turn into liquid metal and assume any form; we don’t remember any of those in the Middle-earth history book The Silmarillion. Both it and Shadow of Mordor address Sauron disguising himself in a far less obviously evil form named Annatar to trick the Elves into making the Rings of Power, but that’s a different ability and is not at all what Monolith is talking about when it makes the comparison in that same interview.
Rather, it means that the first game served as a proof of concept and that the company, better known for first-person shooters like F.E.A.R., could manage an open-world, third-person action title. And now that they’ve proven themselves, they’re free to go full-on blockbuster.
This means those epic battles, the updated Nemesis System, and whatever other madness Monolith decides to throw at us. And if one of the Uruks we meet just happens to be able to form blades out of its body, we might not actually mind, even though that would make no sense and be super dumb.
5 You can ride dragons
OK, so the flame-shooting reptile Talion mounts in the Shadow of War gameplay demo is technically a drake, the difference being that when compared to their dragon cousins, drakes are way smaller and sound a whole lot less like Benedict Cumberbatch.
But we’re fine with being able to ride anything that can fly and shoot fire from its face, so we’re not going to complain at all. The first entry let you tame and mount giant, lion-like Coragors (similar to The Lord of the Rings’ Wargs) and Graugs, which were like huge trolls. But taking the reins of a massive flame lizard is even more exciting, especially considering the advantages and opportunities it will lend us during skirmishes.
And if the developers want to let us just fly one around whenever, that would also be cool. Sometimes those open worlds are a pain to navigate, and we’ll take a flying fire beast over fast travel most days of the week.
Speaking of fire beasts …
4 At least one Balrog will make an appearance
We don’t know how or when the corrupted Maiar (they were like angels; don’t worry about it) will appear in Shadow of War, but one shows up in the announcement trailer, and it would be a jerk move not to pay that off.
The Silmarillion says that many Balrogs existed, so Shadow of War’s isn’t necessarily the same one that shows up in The Fellowship of the Ring. At the time this story is set, that one’s probably way to busy killing Dwarves in Moria to care what’s happening up on the surface. This is a different Balrog, with its own problems, not the least of which being a crazy Ranger and his ghost pal raising an army to destroy Mordor from the inside.
We don’t expect to see wild Balrogs wandering the desolate plains when we’re between quests and hostile takeovers; Monolith is probably saving this superbeast for a major encounter later in the game. We just hope they take heed from titles like Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, which had a trailer showing our hero ripping a Star Destroyer out of the sky with his mind and then made that the most tedious and frustrating part of the game.
3 It leads into The Lord of the Rings
Like the first game, Shadow of War takes place somewhere in the 60 years between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It covers that period of time between when Sauron started to regain power but before most people in Middle-earth were aware enough of his presence to start to do anything about it. This is that period during which everything seems fine, but you might hear rumors about “trouble in the East” or something similarly vague and ominous.
While Mordor isn’t very specific about where it falls in that gap, de Plater says that its will transition smoothly into director Peter Jackson’s movies.
“Going from the end of this story and kind of segueing from here into watching The Lord of the Rings, it'll be really seamless and cool that we can simultaneously have these big, gigantic stakes in our story but kind of shed some new light on Lord of the Rings and make people look at things in sort of a new way,” he told Engadget.
We got hints of this in Mordor when Talion meets the One Ring-craving Gollum for about 10 minutes, but we’re hoping for something a little meatier in the sequel.
2 It will (of course) have a ridiculously expensive ultra-Special Edition
Named for the precious metal that saved Frodo Baggins from ending up on the end of a cave troll’s fork, Shadow of War’s Mithril Edition is a GameStop exclusive and costs as much as most of the consoles you can use to play the game.
It will run $300, and if you haven’t pre-ordered one by now, you’re probably out of luck. And it backs up its massive price by including bonus weapons, characters, and story missions and some impressive, physical items. Those include a “Magnetic Ring of Power,” a soundtrack, a cloth map of Mordor, some lithographs, special packaging, and a 12” statue of a Balrog fighting a drake. Again, we hope this Balrog stuff pays off in-game, because they are teasing the hell out of it.
If you don’t have the disposable income to justify paying in the mid-triple figures for a box of nerdhood, you can also choose from Standard, Silver, and Gold Editions, each offering their own add-ons including so-called “War Chests” for each tier. We have a feeling that these might end up tying in to microtransactions like the buyable-with-real-money loot chests in Overwatch. And we wish that weren’t the case, but this is the world we live in now.
1 This one will have an ending
That bit about segueing into Lord of the Rings aside, we’re really hoping for a bit more closure this time around. Shadow of Mordor ends with a middling boss fight and then Talion looking into the camera and going, “Let’s go make a sequel,” and it was not the most excited we’ve ever been to watch credits roll. It wasn’t any creative failing from the developer, necessarily; they had a deadline, and it was a first attempt despite its massive license. But it sounds like things will be different in Shadow of War.
"Our ending was a bit abrupt last time because we kind of ran out of time," de Plater says. "That wasn't quite what we wanted it to be. So this time we want to overcompensate in terms of having this absolutely epic finale and showdown with the Dark Lord, with the Witch King, with your army building up. Kind of over-correcting in the other direction."
Now that Monolith has proven that the idea works and secured the resources it needs to make the blockbuster it had planned from the beginning, we assume they’ve bought themselves the leeway to fulfill at least most of their ambitions on this project.